“I never expected…” had to be the phrase overheard most often last night during Public Image Limited‘s performance at Showbox at the Market, as in “I never expected… it to be this good… that the band sound so together… for them to play those songs…” etc. Yeah, thirty years later Johnny’s showing ‘em that he’s still got it. Sure, maybe a $45 ticket fee for a no-opener, less than two hour set is hardly punk rock, but fuck it, Johnny’s more than put in the time… and he still manages to do what punk was originally meant to do: the unexpected. People sometimes forget that punk wasn’t meant to be a particular sound but an attitude. And not always a snarling and spitting one either. Twenty five years ago, maybe that was the case, because back then you were supposed to love your fans. So if you were punk? Spit on them. To do that now would be clichéd, expected. No, Johnny and the boys were playing “proper and PIL-like… proper music for proper people.” And the messages were clear: no stage diving, friends are for forgiving, everybody clap and sing along.
But lest you think that Johnny has mellowed with age, he and the band jumped right into their anti-hit hit, “This Is Not A Love Song,” followed by a further, more complex, and creepy, indictment of popular music tendencies in “Poptones,” a surreal (or hyperreal?) pairing of candied exterior and a menacing interior. In any event, we were not to expect just the hits, such as they are. And there was no love lost with the passing of Malcolm McLaren, as Lydon spoke at the end of “Albatross”: “rest in peace, you piece of shit.”
While purists might have preferred to see Jah Wobble and Keith Levene on bass and guitar, Scott Firth and the amazing Lu Edmonds, backed by drummer Bruce Smith (the latter two have been with PIL since ’86) were thrilling to hear and watch, particularly Edmonds, whose guitarwork on “Death Disco” nearly stole the show. Nearly… John Lydon, content with life, soon to be a U.S. citizen apparently, sporting his L.A. tan, hadn’t lost a step with his wild gesticulation, twisted facial expressions, and venomous trills as he bleated out each line. And the crowd of mostly old fogies eventually loosened up, especially by the time of “Warrior,” and a civilized mosh pit formed at the center of the crowd. As Lydon shouted, “This will be my country and I will be a warrior!” the 30-to-40-somethings around me pogoed like it was 1983.
So what brings PIL back after all this time? Money. Lydon has made no secret of what motivates him to tour — just look back to the Sex Pistols’ Filthy Lucre Tour in ’96. But touring is also motivation to head back to the studio. Last last year, Lydon told the BBC that if he earned enough money on this tour, he’d go record new material. However, none of that material entered the setlist, which included a healthy dose of early songs like “Public Image,” “Memories,” “Chant,” and the 30-year old but still relevant today “Religion.” PIL’s ninth album (9) was also well represented, while Happy? was neglected. Thrown into the mix were two of Lydon’s solo tunes, “Sun” and “Psychopath,” and the night ended with “Open Up,” his collaboration with electronic duo Leftfield.
For those of us who haven’t seen PIL live in some 18 years, if at all, it was a triumphant return, one that exceeded most people’s expectations, though clearly there were a lot of diehard fans who might have forgiven a lot (’cause that’s “what friends are for”). One disappointment, though: the missed the opportunity to perform “Seattle” in Seattle. Too hoky? Maybe. But more likely, because we would have expected it.
View more photos here.